Anti-pipeline activists take divestment protest to TD Bank

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GREAT BARRINGTON — For the first time, shouts of "mni wiconi" were heard on Main Street. The water protectors and anti-pipeline activists marched from the courthouse and took their "water is life" principles straight to the bank.

The mission hasn't changed. But with the pipeline they've fought for nearly six months about to go live, they're now taking a broader strategy and going after the system, one they say is not only harming the environment but crushing the rights of indigenous people.

"We're turning our attention to big banks today," said activist Steven Botkin on Monday to around 30 people holding signs or lighting sage in front of TD Bank. "They are a critical piece of the puzzle."

Botkin then walked into the bank with the crowd at his back and delivered a letter, calling for divestment, intended for the CEO of the company. That ended with town police asking everyone to leave the lobby.

But it all began earlier at Southern Berkshire District Court for pretrial hearings for four water protectors who were charged with trespassing on Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co.'s work easement in Otis State Forest.

Micah Carpenter-Lott, MyKennah (Little Wind) Lott, Karla Colon-Aponte and William Connelly were charged with criminal trespass, but those charges were reduced to civil offenses and civil responsibility hearings set for Dec. 7.

The water protectors have joined forces with Sugar Shack Alliance members and other groups to try to stop the completion of the Kinder Morgan subsidiary's natural gas spur next to two existing pipelines built in 1951 and 1981 in the Otis State Forest in Sandisfield.

The company is ready to begin pumping gas through its Connecticut Expansion Project, a 13-mile, tri-state storage loop that has been criticized at every turn.

More than 70 arrests have been made since the work began in May.

Activists have decried the effect the production and distribution of more natural gas will have on the earth's atmosphere. They have lamented such infrastructure going into state-owned and protected forest.

And they have condemned what they say is an overarching economic system that funds pipeline construction.

It is on this complaint that they walked to the bank to encourage divestment from one bank marked by activists around the continent as investing in pipeline construction.

And they weren't alone Monday. The call for divestment is part of a larger "divest the globe" campaign, and the first of actions every day this week around Western Massachusetts, including an interfaith water prayer service Sunday at Lower Spectacle Pond at Otis State Forest.

"We are calling on customers of all sizes to demand TD Bank stop using our money to fund pipelines," Botkin said, reading from a prepared statement.

As it turns out, TD Bank does not fund the Connecticut Expansion Project, according to company spokesman Matthew Doherty.

And in an email to The Eagle, Doherty further said the company not only welcomes peaceful protests, but is working toward a "low-carbon economy over the next 30 to 40 years by investing in sustainable businesses and technologies, supporting carbon-neutral operations and partnering with environmental nonprofits."

Doherty said because the country still runs on fossil fuels, the bank is "selectively investing in conventional energy projects, provided they meet our stringent environmental and social responsibility standards."

But the activists think this investing is anything but. Botkin further called on elected officials and pension managers to join a boycott and also close accounts with Bank of America, CitiBank and Wells Fargo.

Drivers honked in support. Water protectors performed a sage smoke purification ritual on everyone, including members of the press. Then police showed up.

Micah Carpenter-Lott, who helped organize Monday's action, told fellow activists, "if you aren't arrestable, you shouldn't go inside [the bank]"

Retired Unitarian Universalist minister Georganne Greene led a prayer circle outside the doors.

Then Botkin, who has been arrested twice since May, went in. Amid singing and drumming, he stood in the lobby after delivering the letter, looking like he might not budge, despite police asking him to leave.

After about 10 minutes of singing and drumming, he did, and officer Samuel Stolzar shooed everyone else out.

"This is the bank's property," Stolzar said.

"This is stolen land," a water protector was heard saying.

"We're not going to debate that right now," Stolzar answered.

But it is this issue that is new fuel for Native American activists rooted out of their entrenchment at Standing Rock, N.D. They haven't pulled attention away from the Dakota Access Pipeline, but have turned to the bank divestment tactic.

Botkin's speech was sourced from a major resource hub in this battle with the banks: Mazaska Talks — or "money talks" in Lakota. The indigenous grass-roots group has teamed up with a website that is collecting bank and divestment information.

The organization says the government and its courts do not protect indigenous people, and all that's left is pulling money out of banks that continue to fund the Dakota Access Pipeline and other building projects, including the four Tar Sands Expansion pipelines in Canada, which are opposed by a treaty alliance of 121 First Nations and Tribes.

The Mazaska Talks site says there is momentum.

"As of Spring 2017, over $5 billion has been committed to be withdrawn from the banks funding DAPL."

Back outside TD Bank, police asked protesters to use half the sidewalk so people could pass. And more police arrived, including Chief William Walsh, who, after talking to some protesters, was purified with sage, top to bottom. Walsh smiled.

Reach staff writer Heather Bellow at 413-329-6871.


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